Alumni Stories – Daniel MacIvor – Toronto Star

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MacIvor still gets his kicks in Cul-de-sac
Quirky characters have dark sides in neighbours' tale

These days writer aims to connect, not to confront 

Welcome to the dark side.

It's early in the morning and Daniel MacIvor is still coping with the effects of an all-night flight from Vancouver on which he failed to get any sleep.

It's the perfect mood to get the 42-year-old theatre artist to discuss his one-man show Cul-de-sac, which starts performances at Buddies in Bad Times next Wednesday. His latest feature film, Wilby Wonderful, also opened across Canada yesterday, making the month of October a Mini-MacIvor Festival.

"You never plan these things to happen this way," he admits sheepishly, "but it is kind of rewarding."

Cul-de-sac was seen here briefly in the spring of 2003, at which time my colleague Robert Crew gave it five stars and hailed it as "Brilliant ... the purest of pure theatre."

Now it's back for an extended run before heading off to New York's PS 122 Theatre, where his previous works have met with consistent acclaim.

On one level Cul-de-sac is, in MacIvor's words, "about a community living together. I've been in Toronto for almost 25 years now and I'm still trying to figure out who lived on my street."

"Who are the people in your neighbourhood?" he asks, sounding like a satanic Mr. Rogers.

The District we explore in Cul-de-sac is filled with quirky characters who are amusing at first but are also capable in some cases of erupting into sudden and profoundly disturbing violence.

"Yes, there's a dark vein that runs through the play," willingly concedes MacIvor. "In fact, one of the characters is a kind of devil and I play him with great vigour and commitment."

MacIvor's words recall the last solo piece like this, which he also created with his longtime co-creator, Daniel Brooks. It was called Monster and MacIvor's performance in it in 1998 - describing gruesome dismemberment, child abuse and characters steeped in misanthropy and alcoholism - ranked right up there with Anthony Hopkins's chilling turn as Hannibal Lecter when it comes to looking deep inside the blackest parts of the human soul.

"I think the theatre helps me," is how MacIvor reasons his way through it. "My solo shows become a series of exorcisms."

"Come to think of it, the theatre saved my life," he says, with a sense of realization. "It allowed me an outlet for anger and frustration. It gave me a way out."

The place he had to get out of was Sydney, N. S., where he was born on July 23, 1962.

"There are only three gay people from Cape Breton," he quips, "me, (playwright) Bryden MacDonald and a guy named Ray."

But even more important than the geographical influences on MacIvor's life were the familial ones.

"My father was a chronic alcoholic. It's a situation that effects everyone in the family. You're always the child of an alcoholic. Forever. You walk around for the rest of your life with a certain amount of fear and frustration and blame."

MacIvor carried those feelings with him through his education at Dalhousie University in Halifax and later at George Brown College in Toronto.

He started creating original works of theatre in 1986 and instantly emerged as a unique voice on the Canadian scene. Shows like House, Here Lies Henry and The Lorca Play earned him a reputation around the world.

Back in those days, the word that everyone used to describe MacIvor's work was "edgy" and he laughs now to think about what he and his plays were like years ago.

"I was afraid of myself. I was afraid of the audience. And that dual fear manifested itself in a kind of in-your-face-ism. Get them before they get me.

"Over the last number of years, I came to realize there's nothing to be afraid of. No one is out to get me."

The result of that discovery has been a series of shows like You Are Here and In On It that could be described as the creation of a kinder, gentler MacIvor.

He cheerfully allows that it's true. "The last few plays have been a journey I'm making to get out of my head, not to be afraid of emotion."

He thinks about it for a moment. "Actually, all my shows have had heart ... the difference is how many thorns I used to put around that heart."

One of the things that makes these works so fascinating is the dynamic between MacIvor and Brooks. Although creatively in total synch, they come at things from a different philosophical perspective that MacIvor finds stimulating.

"(Brooks) is more of an existentialist. He sees most of life's choices as dead ends, but I believe in purpose and reason in the universe."

Would MacIvor go as far as to say he believes in God? He hesitates before answering.

"I spent a long time being afraid of that word because I was raised Catholic and it's impossible to be gay and Catholic ... at least the way I was raised. I avoid using the word `God' because there's something so iconic about it. The whole old-man-with-a-white-beard kind of thing.

"But I have always believed in Him. Only I have a much more fluid idea of who He is."

MacIvor has also never been reluctant to admit he's gay, but somehow the title of "gay playwright" hasn't been affixed to him and that's a freedom he enjoys.

"It's not the way a lot of my brothers feel, but I think we get a lot farther politically and emotionally by being inclusive rather than exclusive. We're all on the same journey. Let's look at what makes us similar instead of what separates us."

"I always like to feel that people should walk out of the theatre with the urge to make contact. What I really want is for people to connect."